Boris Johnson suggested on Thursday that Ukraine should be given a bye to the World Cup.
He may or may not have been aware that this would deny Scotland and Wales – both currently part of the United Kingdom of which he is prime minister – from appearing at the World Cup.
Johnson did acknowledge that football was “not my best subject” as he welcomed the proposal, a rare moment of self awareness and an even rarer moment when a politician didn’t pass themselves off as a lifelong supporter of what they invariably call “the beautiful game”.
Johnson had also managed to call for the Russian army to retreat from Ukraine and hand over the hosting of Euro 2028 to Ukraine as well, something which seemed to alarm those who felt Johnson should be supporting the Ireland-UK bid, which had formally announced its expression of interest a couple of days beforehand, as well as alarming those who didn’t know it was in the Russian army’s gift.
For those who were sceptical of Ireland’s bid, these interventions demonstrated one of the dangers in allowing it to proceed: the unavoidable prospect that it becomes a talking point for every politician who thinks it is a relatively risk free arena to roll out some rhetorical flourishes and what they consider to be big ideas.
Football attracts this clownishness like no other sport because it means so much to so many people.
One of the aspects of the Irish bid that makes it appealing is that it isn’t promising a massive overinvestment in new stadiums, with upgrades to Lansdowne Road and Croke Park the most likely areas of spending.
Of course, there will be those who crave a bit more adrenaline than that, who wish that there could be something shiny and new to point to, a 75,000 all-seater stadium on the Cliffs of Moher, for example or maybe even Boris Johnson’s bridge across the Irish Sea.
They might remember the stories before the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 about the stadium the country built in the jungle and think that if it can be done there, with all the competing needs for finances in that country, it can be done here.
In the giddiness that infects so many people before a tournament, this point of view becomes widespread. (It is why the idea of the World Cup in Qatar serving as a platform to “shine a light” on practices in the country makes little sense. If the country felt the light shining would make a difference, they wouldn’t have bid for the World Cup in the first place. The hosts know that when the fever takes hold, most people can barely look beyond the excitement in front of them.)
In Manaus in 2014, it all made sense in the fever. I remember flying from Rio over the Amazon to Manaus. We looked down at the meeting of the waters of the Amazon with the Rio Negro and touched down in the city believing – really believing – that there was a historical context to a World Cup game taking place in a stadium built in a city which could only be reached by plane.
After all, It was here in the 1880s, in the time of the rubber barons, that they’d built the Teatro Amazonas, a palace for opera designed by an Italian architect, Celestial Scaradim, whose vision demanded that they import Carrara marble from Italy, steel from Glasgow and tapestries from Flanders.
The Teatro Amazonas was built with such ambition as it was designed to tempt the great Caruso to sing in Manaus. The story goes that he sang there in 1897 although others say he never made it at all. The Teatro Amazonas can be seen in Fitzcarraldo, Herzog’s movie about a man who tries to transport a steam ship over a mountain, another story of vision defying logic, no matter the consequences.
So as we stood in Manaus looking at the opera house, it no longer seemed outlandish that we were here to watch England play Italy. It was in keeping with the spirit of the place that the city had built a 40,000 seater stadium at a cost of $220 million. Manaus’s mayor said at the time, “I’ve heard that many pop stars have dreamed of singing for a low price in the Amazon jungle.”
So we flew in and flew out but when the World Cup left town, the pop stars never came. The stadium stands as a monument to how not to do things, a white elephant in a city that finds more use for its opera house built to entice Caruso than a stadium built to host Roy Hodgson’s England.
There will be those who want to do it that way, who would be more excited by the prospect of those stadiums built on a hill than the restrained, underwhelming Irish bid.
But still it is too much for some. “We’re unconvinced as to whether this is the right move for Irish football at this point,” Labour’s Aodhán Ó Riordáin said.
“There is any amount of structural issues within Irish football and we feel that this type of venture from the FAI will act as a distraction from the type of investment, the type of funding, the type of reorganisation of the Irish game that is very, very much needed.”
In that context, there will never be a good time to host a football tournament in this country. This is a legitimate point of view, one strengthened by the reluctance of many countries to host tournaments and the questionable reasons others are desperate to do so.
Yet that history also illustrates how relatively benign Ireland’s problems are and why sometimes a distraction is not an indictable offence.
Ireland should expect to qualify for the tournament which would make it a joyous occasion and something that lives long in the memory.
International football is so vast in its possibilities that it encourages so many to comment and get involved, even when, as in the case of Boris Johnson, they probably shouldn’t. But it is that too which gives it its power.
Stephen Kenny’s Ireland will play in front of a crowd close to capacity on Saturday against Belgium, another demonstration of the interest in the team and the appetite for football in the country.
In Wales, they rejoiced when Gareth Bale, ignored by Real Madrid, drove his country close to the World Cup. In Italy, they wondered what had happened to a country which won the European Championships last year and has now failed to qualify for another World Cup.
International football is compromised just like club football and in a world of escalating and conflicting nationalisms, it can sometimes be a platform for proxy displays of ugliness.
But nothing gets people attention like international football, which is why it is forever being hijacked and why it is a mistake to underestimate the impact it can have.